In Las Vegas, a city known for soaking — at a convention filled with people who allow soaking, either directly or in related products — an organization dedicated to sobriety might seem (at first glance) extremely out of place.
But the Bar & Restaurant Expo, which just wrapped up a three-day run at the Convention Center, is the perfect place for Ben’s Friends, a sobriety support network of hospitality professionals. The group’s co-founder, Mickey Bakst, immediately pointed this out Tuesday during a break from the event.
“We want our band exposed,” said Bakst, a longtime restaurateur (including time at James Beard Award-winning Tribute in Michigan) who said he’s been 39 years sober. “Alcohol and drugs seriously affect people in our industry. Every employer that comes through here has at least one employee struggling with alcohol and drugs.
“I want to tell the owners that they don’t have to fire these employees,” and to the employees that they don’t necessarily need to leave hospitality.
Like AA, without steps or overpower
This approach differs, Bakst readily admits, from traditional clinical treatment, which calls for avoiding places where addictive substances are found. Ben’s Friends does not contain a clinical component, he said. Instead, “we’re very similar to AA in our structure, except we’re not really God-centered and not really step-centered.”
At group meetings, people who have in common the hospitality profession, its distinctive schedules and characteristic addictions tell stories of sobriety, or trying, the co-founder said.
“A meeting is, ‘I had a hard time last night, that’s what happened.’ “
“A meeting is like, ‘I’ve been four days sober and I have to stay behind the bar and how do you deal with the stress of being behind that bar?’ “
“A meeting is, ‘I’ve been sober for two weeks and my kitchen is 120 degrees and my chef is aj———and how do you deal with stress?’ “
A network born of mourning
Ben’s Friends honors the memory of South Carolina chef Ben Murray, a friend of Bakst and co-founder Steve Palmer, a three-time James Beard Award semi-finalist and managing partner of the famed Indigo Road Hospitality Group in the South Carolina. In 2016, after years of struggling with alcohol, Murray took his own life.
From the grief of men, Ben’s friends emerged. “We had to do something,” Bakst said of all the hospitality professionals who ruin their lives and careers because of addiction.
The first meeting was held in 2016 in Charleston, South Carolina. It first turned, by word of mouth, into meetings (remote during the pandemic) in 15 towns in the county, as well as remote meetings nationwide.
Living sober is possible; they should know
The support network also grew out of the founders’ descent and coming out of addiction.
For Palmer, alcohol abuse led to estrangement from his family, a failed marriage and homelessness before an intervention pushed him into sobriety. It took the loss of his restaurant in California and his medical resuscitation after a three-day drinking binge for Bakst to begin the journey.
Palmer dates his sobriety to November 5, 2001, Bakst to December 14, 1982. The dates aren’t just milestones, Bakst said. The years of sobriety they reflect also demonstrate, through Ben’s Friends, that a satisfying life and career without alcohol is possible in food and drink.
Bakst is interested in starting the band’s Las Vegas chapter; anyone interested in getting involved should contact him at [email protected]